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TOP PLACES TO WORK | NO. 1 SMALL EMPLOYER - ASSOCIATES FOR HUMAN SERVICES

Warm and welcome

This nonprofit creates a nurturing environment for those it serves — and its workers, too

AT ASSOCIATES FOR Human Services Inc., the smiles start just outside the front door: a father unloading his bouncing child from the car, kids giggling with their moms in the waiting room, staffers chattering behind the reception window.

Human resources manager Terry Rodrigues strolls down a daylight-filled hall, pointing out the services that the Taunton nonprofit offers for children and adults with developmental disabilities or other ailments. There’s the window display full of children’s books, in the office where employees coordinate home visits with families who want reading help to get kids ready for school. Across the way is a comfy room where elders socialize as activities coordinator Jennifer Cansler decorates a window.

“If you’re having a bad day, walk through here,’’ Rodrigues said as she watched Cansler interact with program participants. “They appreciate everything you do for them.’’

That appreciation, employees said, keeps them dedicated, and helped make Associates for Human Services the number one small organization on the Top Places to Work survey.

Founded in 1974, the nonprofit has doubled in size in the last decade, now employing 143 people in Massachusetts. Many workers have been there for a decade or more.

Cansler arrived 20 years ago as an intern. She stayed, she said, because something in the work called to the then-single mother. Today, she said she feels as if her fellow employees are an extended family, looking out for each other and the people that receive services.

She recalled the time when an elderly woman took ill and was hospitalized, and had no relatives to visit with her. Cansler said staff worked out a schedule so that someone from Associates was always at her bedside.

“We were all there until the last breath,’’ Cansler said.

Ann Doyle, residential services program director, told of a formal party last year, when staff were moved to tears by a man who kept marveling at his reflection in a mirror. He had never worn a tux before.

The organization is a great employer for reasons beyond its mission, employees said. The nonprofit, which has a roughly $7 million budget, contributes to a retirement plan for employees and offers year-end financial incentives.

Cansler also called Associates — with its brightly colored walls, window-filled rooms, and outdoor patios — a personable place built with employee input, where workers are given the flexibility to manage their lives.

Executive director Kit Tunney, who started with the nonprofit 26 years ago as a speech pathologist, said employees are encouraged to speak up and solve problems because it makes for a better workplace.

“When you have a problem, the best way to solve it is to solve it together,’’ Tunney said. “Staff have a voice. We want to hear it.’’

Michael Weekes, president of the Massachusetts Council of Human Service Providers, which counts Associates as a member, said he thinks Tunney’s leadership is a major part of the formula.

“It’s important for staff to feel that they are being supported in trying to help people achieve dignity and success in their lives,’’ he said.

Employees surveyed for the Top Places to Work list gave Associates high marks as a place where managers inspire confidence and take the time to listen.

“Everyone is treated as an individual and not as a label,’’ Cansler said. “They make the time to make you feel special.’’

Rodrigues said recognizing employees is important to the company, because so many have made their careers here.

“When we have people with us 10, 15, 20, 25 years in the same position, just because they love what they’re doing, that’s amazing,’’ Rodrigues explained.

To honor them, she helped institute a recognition program, awarding certificates of service for each year of an employee’s work. Awards are displayed prominently at several desks, including Rodrigues’s. She was voted “Employee of the Year’’ once, and keeps the tiara she received on a shelf, with a picture from the day she got it.

It makes Tunney smile. “We’re very blessed,’’ she said. “There’s no other way to say it.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com.  

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